January 13, 2011

Free Africa

ARTIST:  various artists
TITLE:  Free Africa
LABEL:  Le Son Du Maquis
REVIEW:  2010 marked the 50th year of independence for 17 African countries, and prompted some superb reissues focusing on the music of the post-colonial period.  Sterns’ 18-CD set Africa - 50 Years Of Music deserves all the praise (and little of the nitpicking) that it’s received.  At less than a quarter of the price, this French-released 4-disc package is a worthy budget-conscious alternative.  It doesn’t have the deluxe booklet, insightful notes, archival photos or crystal-clear audio of its pricier competitor (most of the tracks sound quite good, but a few have clearly been mastered from less-than-mint vinyl copies).  But what it does have is 50 historically significant tracks from all across Africa, recordings made from the mid-60’s (Miriam Makeba’s signature “Pata Pata”) to today (a selection from Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba’s breakthrough 2010 album I Speak Fula).  Many of Africa’s most famous and important artists are represented – Le Grand Kalle, Mulatu Astatqe, Tabu Ley Rochereau, the Rail Band, Manu Dibango, Etoile De Dakar, Bembeya Jazz, Orchestra Baobab, Alpha Blondy, Salif Keita, Baba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Amadou & Mariam are all here.  But for me the highlight of this set is the selection of tracks from great artists who are less-known to unknown in the USA and Europe:

-  The stately Mande music of Orchestre National Du Mali (disc 1-track 7)
-  Togolese singer Bella Bellow, whose selection here is reminiscent of French ye-ye rock (1-11)
-  Ethiopian singer Muluquen Mellesse, less known but no less compelling than his peers Mahmoud Ahmed and Tlahoun Gessesse (2-2)
-  Senegal’s Super Diamono, one of the pioneers of mbalax (2-8)
-  Zao, the brilliant satirical singer from Congo-Brazzaville (3-2)
-  The visionary psychedelic rock of Gambia’s Ifang Bondi (3-10)
-  Reggae singer Tiken Jah Fakoly of Cote D’Ivoire, probably the most important politically-oriented musical artist in all of Africa today (4-6)
-  Cameroon’s Franck Biyong, whose “Afrolectric” sound is taking Afrobeat in a new direction (4-11)

This set is very highly recommended, both as an excellent introduction to African popular music and as the kind of well-curated set that will inspire folks who are already fans to seek out additional sounds.  Nicely done.

REVIEWER:  Bill Lupoletti

Disc 1:    7    11            Disc 2:    2    8
Disc 3:    2    10            Disc 4:    6    11

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